ALTAMONT — Heather Wilson’s fifth season as the head coach of the Labette County Grizzlies volleyball program will be unlike any other. In addition to operating under the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson believes this team is capable of progressing from being a formidable opponent in the SEK League to a title contender.
“They know the expectations and are positive kids,” Wilson said. “They’ve developed their own culture and idea of excellence. They don’t settle for a lack of work ethic. They want everybody working hard.”
Labette County went 20-15 last year and took third place in the SEK League.
The Grizzlies lost three key pieces to graduation from last year and only have two seniors — Claire Carnahan and Paige Shomber — on roster this year.
“Abby Ryan, Sydnie Stice and Shelby Meier were huge components of our success,” Wilson said. “We’re going to miss them. With that being said, we were super young last year. Now, the juniors we have on our team have been playing for a while. So it’s exciting to have a veteran group.”
Anna Dean, one of 11 juniors on the team, looks to be the Grizzlies’ top offensive threat on the front row.
“She wants that role,” Wilson said. “She’d tell you she was disappointed in her season last year. In the clutch, she’d struggle to put a ball down. But she had a wonderful club season and preseason. She’s so much more focused and driven to want the ball in her hands.”
Dean is complemented by Madison Brannin, another junior who has developed her own ability to go up top and put a ball down.
“She has become way more consistent,” Wilson said. “She can see the floor very well. She didn’t put the ball down a lot for us last year, but she’s doing that this year. She’s a big defensive player for us on the front line. She wants to get the other team out of system.”
Quarterbacking Labette County is sophomore setter Shelbi Wilson. The daughter of the head coach, Shelbi has developed into a six-rotation player.
“She can play the front row at any point,” Wilson said. “She’s definitely playing more mature as a sophomore. I look to have her find our kids better and create opportunities. If she gets a bad ball, she can give our hitters something better in return.”
Carnahan will also reinforce the Grizzlies’ lineup.
“She brings a lot of positive energy to the floor,” Wilson said. “She’s consistent in terms of effort. We’re working on her passing. But she cares so much about everybody around her. Just bringing that everyday is what she brings to us.”
Ava Alloway, yet another junior, will be one of the Grizzlies’ better back row players.
“She’s my defensive player,” Wilson said. “She played a lot of JV and some club last year. She’s hard on herself, but she’s an athletic kid. She’s a workhorse and looks great this year. She’ll get better and ascend to the level of competition.”
Other key pieces for the Grizzlies include Lauren Forbes, Karsyn Stewart, Ashantae Smith and Shomber.
“I feel really good about our entire group,” Wilson said. “The dynamic is very positive and they’re fun to coach. We’re all realizing how important athletics is right now.”
While the Grizzlies have sky-high aspirations this fall, their commitment to following KSHSAA and local health guidelines through the pandemic is a critical part of their approach.
“We talk about sacrifices we have to make in order for us to play this season,” Wilson said. “Something may go wrong even if we’ve done everything right and made every sacrifice. But we definitely have addressed the guidelines multiple times. We want the girls masking up everywhere. We’re asking the girls to hold themselves to a higher standard even when no one is looking.”
Independence and Pittsburg have maintained a steadfast control over the league in recent history. Labette County has always been a tough out, but the Grizzlies want to enter into the contender conversation this fall.
“That’s a question I’m asking myself on the daily,” Wilson said. “What’s the piece that takes us to one loss or two losses in the league versus five or six? I really believe that this group is talented but also committed. I see it in their eyes. They want to hang a banner.”